Efforts to repeal the death penalty are getting a boost from the economic crisis.
New Mexico repealed its death penalty in mid-March, and the Maryland Legislature has passed strict new limits on when the death penalty may be used. Death penalty repeal bills have advanced in several other legislatures, including those of Montana, Kansas and New Hampshire.
In all those states, there's been renewed interest in the argument that the death penalty costs considerably more than sentencing murderers to life in prison. Viki Elkey, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty, says lawmakers seemed especially interested in the financial argument this year.
"The cost issue has always been there, but of course it's been exacerbated this year because of the fact that the state is down $453 million," Elkey says.
Elkey believes the cost issue gave some lawmakers a "practical reason" to reconsider the death penalty. Richard Dieter, who runs the Death Penalty Information Center — an anti-capital punishment group in Washington — agrees that cost can sway the debate.
"If it's just on gut and my morality versus your morality, the debate still gets stuck and is a stalemate. But as a pragmatic issue, this is a new way of looking at it," Dieter says.
It's hard to put an exact number on the cost of the death penalty versus life imprisonment, because states have very different methods for shouldering the cost of the legal defense, appeals and other factors.
But in general, capital murder trials cost more, because they have two phases — the trial itself, and then sentencing, which requires a separate verdict. Selecting a jury that's willing to impose the death penalty can take weeks or months longer, and the death sentence itself can also lead to more legal appeals. For example, the recent challenge to the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If you divide the overall cost by the number of actual executions, Dieter says, the death penalty is very expensive.
"The cost per execution is at least $3 million — it's probably more in a lot of these states — and we have 3,000 people on death row. The costs are in the billions," Dieter says.
But supporters of the death penalty say expense is no reason to abolish it. William "Rusty" Hubbarth, of the victims-rights organization Justice for All, calls the expense argument "crass."
"I think that's ludicrous, especially since the financial cost is created by the defense," Hubbarth says.
Death penalty opponents are sensitive to this argument. Montana state Sen. Dave Wanzenried got a repeal bill through the state Senate in part by being careful not to play up the money angle.
"If you listen to people talk about the reasons — including my own reasons — to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole, it would be about fourth," he says.
When Wanzenried does talk about savings, he's quick to say the money should go back into public safety.
But the fact is, in most states, the death penalty looks solid. In Montana, Wanzenried's repeal bill passed the Senate only to get bogged down in a House committee Monday. That's been the pattern in a number of death penalty states: The cost issue has pushed repeal a little further through the process, but death penalty supporters still have the political high ground. One of those supporters, Montana state Sen. Dan McGee, says abolishing the death penalty would be a "mistake."
"The death penalty is a needed instrument of justice," McGee says. "It ought not be used often. I think it should be used only in specific cases where it's absolutely clear you have the right person and that an absolutely heinous crime has been done."
McGee's tempered support for the death penalty seems to reflect a national trend. While 35 states still have the death penalty on the books, they're actually executing fewer prisoners — only 37 last year, about two-thirds off the peak in 1999. Death sentences are also down by half. Now that many states and counties are desperately strapped for cash, local prosecutors have even less incentive to opt for the expense of a death penalty trial.